Fran Lebowitz and Martin Scorsese declare their love for New York and one another in Fake It is A Metropolis
Martin Scorsese laughs with his whole body, consumed by an exuberance that manifests itself in slaps and a moment when it looks like he is actually falling from his chair in delight. His delight is the soundtrack to Pretend It’s A City, a reunion with his close friend Fran Lebowitz after collaborating with HBO Documentary Films Public Speaking 2010. The new documentaries are interrupted by Scorsese’s giggles and laughter. Subtitles are displayed as “Martin laughs” and “Martin keeps laughing” more than once. So much joy in watching comes from the sheer quality of Scorsese’s reactions to Lebowitz, a character who has remained unique over the past five decades and whose lively mannerisms, precise opinions, and expansive stories take center stage here – for better and for worse.
Pretend It’s A City is a very niche project shaped by Lebowitz’s nostalgia for New York City “then” and their sour analysis of contemporary life, and it’s hard to say who this would appeal to outside of Lebowitz and Scorsese fans . After all, who else would be so excited when Lebowitz and Scorsese swap stories about Cary Grant and the 1963 film The Leopard, or share tips on how best to avoid walking across Times Square or their experiences on the set of The Wolf Of To discuss Wall Street? Not everything has to be for everyone, but even in the face of this warning, Pretend It’s A City is just as uninterested in attracting unknown viewers as Lebowitz mitigates, who has bluntly clear thoughts on topics like gay rights, the #MeToo movement, sports and climate change. When an audience at one of her lectures asks what it thinks of our time “to stifle political correctness”, Lebowitz’s expressionless answer “I breathe well” is short and sweet. And yes, it pretty much makes Scorsese laugh.
The seven half-hour episodes of Pretend It’s A City offer viewers the opportunity to witness Lebowitz’s determined stride through New York, Scorsese’s search through library books and their lengthy conversations over coffee at The Players Club. Several episodes are named after departments or institutions in New York, including “Cultural Affairs” and “Library Services”. They examine Lebowitz’s anger, praise, or memories on any subject in a number of ways. The New York Curmudgeon character has long existed in pop culture, and Lebowitz wears this coat with her signature bold glasses, mid-parted hair, and bespoke men’s suit jackets and coat. After leaving high school, Lebowitz moved from New Jersey to the city where she worked a variety of odd jobs – house cleaner, taxi driver – when she also began a career as a writer. First as a film critic and then as a columnist, Lebowitz wrote for Andy Warhol’s interview magazine for 11 years and then found success with two essay books: 1978’s Metropolitan Life and 1981’s Social Studies. That fame took her to various talk shows in the decades to come, and although Lebowitz’s decades of writer’s block has become a frequent topic of her own self-loathing, she has maintained her career as a public speaker and public figure.
The story goes on
In an interview with Alec Baldwin, she tells how her mother told her: “Don’t be funny with boys” – advice that she immediately ignored. She is delighted with David Letterman describing smoking as “it’s my hobby, if not my job” and then gets big laughs from the studio audience saying that her days are full of “smoking and revenge”. She discusses with Spike Lee whether athletes can be artists. Her vehement disregard for professional sport makes Lee more and more irritated before casually mentioning that she participated in the 1971 fight of the century between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. She charms Olivia Wilde with her thoughts on social media are that she doesn’t use it – Lebowitz doesn’t own a cell phone or a computer – but that she can’t question the emotional validity of friendships and relationships made online. And in a particularly revealing clip from a 2008 New York Public Library event, she talks to her close friend Toni Morrison about Morrison’s use of “we” in her writing versus Lebowitz’s use of “they”; Her sarcasm of trying to push readers away while Morrison wanted to hug her makes the legendary author choke on her water. (The documentaries are dedicated to the late Morrison.)
Scorsese picks up on these interviews and conversations from previous years and complements them with film clips, musical performances, pictures from front pages and articles, as well as more intimate, timely conversations between him and Lebowitz to convey the persistence of reflective criticism and biting joke and no-nonsense -Brusqueness. It’s comforting to see how consistent she has remained and contagious excitement to watch the exuberance she pour into long stories that jump from one detail to another. Lebowitz begins a story that begins with her memory of a taxi driver, then jumps into the Belmore Cafeteria (in Scorsese’s film Taxi Driver), where taxi and bus drivers get food at any time of the night and then moves on to a discussion of why they are more a driver than a waitress then praises how impressive city waiters and waitresses are at reciting the details of specials and menus, then ponders how dinner parties used to be before finally saying, “This is what’s it like to take a bus? “
This uninterrupted stream of consciousness is roughly half of Lebowitz’s approach, while the other half successively launches pithy observations, waits a split second to see what lands and what doesn’t, and then tweaks their one-liners. Telephones are too ubiquitous: “The only person who looks where they’re going is me.” The subway is terrible: “New Yorkers forgot how to walk.” Apartments are too expensive: “I joined my fellow Americans for no reason to have psychotic debts.” It doesn’t matter whether Lebowitz Scorsese is sitting across the street in the Players Club or standing in the middle of Robert Moses’ miniature panorama of the city of New York in the Queens Museum, she is always there.
Granted, Scorsese is an exceptionally warm audience for this, and he seldom asks Lebowitz questions or clarifying questions about their opinions. This call may have helped to focus Lebowitz’s sometimes conflicting thoughts on the #MeToo movement or its seemingly dismissive attitude towards inclusivity in art (“A book should not be a mirror. It should be a door”). Such interrogation might not have come from Scorsese, who oscillates between a refreshing ease with Lebowitz (searching through ancestral books in the library to find a record of the arrival of his Italian family in New York City, his dismissive “Norwegians, bah “). is one of the funniest moments on the show) and a snappy return to directing after the two talk for a while (“Allora, andiomo, let it go!” he instructs).
Maybe filtering out Lebowitz’s opinions isn’t really what Pretend It’s A City is all about. More specifically, this is a love letter to a particular version of New York City and to the film, art, and novels that shaped the Lebowitz and Scorsese generation. Pretend It’s A City is more of an affirmation and assurance of how viewers are already thinking and what they already like than the gently challenging and curious nature of this other recent series on New York City, How To With John Wilson. Where Wilson was ready to wander around town and find unexpected moments of strangeness and beauty in his endless filming, Lebowitz has already set your mind and you either agree or disagree. She couldn’t care less. “Oh, Fran,” Scorsese says at one point, and that confused mood colors the entirety of the lovingly admiring, if somewhat unchallenged, Pretend It’s A City.